Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Dance Party: We're Gonna Need A Bigger Rooftop

I don't know if it was invented by Animal Planet or Discovery or The Big Fish Channel, or what, but that annual celebration of underwater carnivores is upon us, Shark Week.  I don't see the attraction.  Americans have been fascinated by those creatures ever since somebody in Jaws mentioned they might need a bigger boat.

In honor of Shark Week, a big number from MY favorite Sharks, the ones who sing and dance. 
This is a shark week I can get behind.
The Puerto Rican gang from West Side Story does not get stage or screen time equal to the Jets, sorry to say, as I find them much more interesting than the white boys.  But when they do show up, andele!!  The gang appeared on the Dance Party once before, several years ago at the sockhop, so it's time to present the moment during which they really shine.
This sequence was shot on location in NYC, in the neighborhood which now houses Lincoln Center. A few naysayers dislike West Side Story, as they cannot accept ballet-dancing gang members. I can, and do.
Taken from the well-regarded film version of the show, "America" had a checkered history.  The original score reflects that it was meant to be sung only by the ladies, one group arguing with another.  That version is still occasionally used.  Film director Robert Wise and his associates recognized the limitations of that scenario, and included the gents in the number, turning it into the guys vs. the girls.  Seems obvious that it should always have been so, and it is that observation which has given way to a theatrical legend of sorts.
When "America" was first sung on Broadway, it was entirely female.  What an improvement was made with the addition of the men in the film, and subsequent stage productions.
It's now said that the authors meant for the song to be coed all along, even in the original Broadway version. 
Jerome Robbins rehearses the original.

There was a scheduling mixup (so goes the legend) the day the show's director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, wanted to stage the number, and the boys were not called to rehearsal.  (Maybe stage management thought they were doing "I Feel Pretty" that day instead?)  In a fit of pique, Robbins blamed the actors, and removed them from the number, staging it only with the girls instead. 
George Chakiris in the chorus of White Christmas.

This tale is fun to think about, but even taking Robbins's notorious temper into account, it doesn't really ring true to me.  Such a huge adjustment (completely removing the men from the number) would surely have to be approved by the songwriters, Sondheim and Bernstein.  I think this lore has sprung up to justify the fact that, in the original, the writers simply didn't think to put the men in the number.

Anyway, the guys are there now, and most revivals, professional and amateur, play it that way. 
These Sharks clean up good,
especially when winning awards.

It certainly proved to be a showcase for the two leading Sharks, played by George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, as they both won Oscars for their efforts.  West Side Story, in fact, holds the record for winning the most Academy Awards of any film musical (10, out of 11 nominations.  Only the screen adaptation lost that night).  Chakiris and Moreno are undoubtedly the success stories of the film, as Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are pretty dull as the romantic leads (and neither of them sang their own songs). 
Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene inspired West Side Story's big hit, "Tonight." Neither of these leading players could sing it.
In fact, when WSS made the leap from stage to screen, none of the four leading players who had created the roles went with it.  By the time the film was shooting, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence were both around 30, and producers did not feel they could play teenagers on film convincingly.  I agree with them, but Chakiris and Moreno don't look like teenagers, either, but whatever. 
Chita Rivera's breakout role did not
lead to a film career. 
But she's done just fine.

I love Rita's work here, but still would have liked to have seen Chita Rivera's performance preserved on film (what a different trajectory her career would have taken, if Chita had been allowed to recreate her roles in WSS and Bye Bye Birdie for their respective films!). 
Moreno had a supporting lead
in The King And I. A Latina
playing Asian: non-traditional

But Moreno is far from a letdown, and would eventually become the first performer to win the Oscar, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy.  As for Chakiris, he had been connected to the stage version of WSS in London, where he had played Riff, the leader of the Jets.  In the years leading up to WSS, he had been knocking around Hollywood as a chorus boy.
George Chakiris was often in the chorus in films from the 50s, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In honor of Shark Week, enjoy some rooftop dancing: